The lack of public fussing by either striking writers or the studios since they resumed informal talks last week had seemed like good news -- when name-calling subsides, it's usually because negotiations are getting serious. But the past couple of days, temperatures have risen again. Prominent Writers Guild official Phil Alden Robinson, the writer-director of Field of Dreams, called for the union to take a tougher bargaining position. At the same time, Screen Actors Guild officials have attacked the deal that the directors' union reached with studios last month, which is the template for talks between the studio and the writers. Meanwhile, CBS boss Les Moonves is reportedly angry that union officials have been badmouthing his company in meetings on Wall Street. It's hard to know what's going on inside the negotiating room, but none of this stuff the past few days is a good sign.
Marie Osmond, who had a brief two-year run with a syndicated talk show she hosted with brother Donny in the late 1990s, is giving it another try. But this time she'll fly solo. Marie will debut in fall 2009 and be aimed at women. Her Donny & Marie talk show turned in less than spectacular ratings during its 1998-2000 run. But her stock is high among TV executives right now because of her popularity as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars, as well as monster audiences that turned for her recent appearances on the shows of Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.
The networks are starting to show some of the tricks by which they hope to survive the writers' strike if it stretches out to the horizon. One was completely predictable: reality shows, which don't require writers. CBS on Tuesday ordered two more rounds of Survivor for next season.
More surprising was the news that CBS is turning to Canada to break the strike. The network announced it's bought 13 episodes of a new cop show tentatively titled Flashpoint. It's being written and produced in Canada and will be shown simultaneously on CTV, Canada's biggest private English-language network. Though Canadian writers are unionized, their contract is still in force and they aren't part of the Hollywood strike that's about to enter its fourth month.
Even before the strike, the broadcast networks were actively seeking shows overseas. (NBC's programming boss, Ben Silverman, has practically made a career out of adapting foreign TV shows to the U.S. market.) The pace of their search is likely to accelerate, and Canada -- as close a thing as there is to a cultural clone of the United States -- is likely to increasingly be the hunting ground.
NBC's new Sex And The City ripoff Lipstick Jungle, based on the novel by SATC author Candace Bushnell, doesn't debut until Feb. 7. But if you've got TiVo, you can see the first episode as early as Jan. 31, using Amazon's Unbox video downloading site. The real surprise: It's free.
Not only is Jericho, rescued from the cancellation scrap pile by CBS last spring after viewer protests, about to kick off its second season, but the first season is about to get a repeat screening. The Sci Fi Channel, though it's owned by rival NBC Universal, has acquired the rights to Jericho reruns and is even scheduling them in a way calculated to help the show on CBS. Sci Fi will launch its Jericho run with a four-hour marathon on Feb. 11 -- the night before CBS kicks off the second season.
Sci Fi's marathon will air from 7 to 11 p.m.; after that, the show's regular time slot will be Mondays at 10 p.m. CBS airs its new episodes of Jericho Tuesdays at 10 p.m.
Hollywood's striking writers and the big studios have taken a highly publicized step toward a settlement with Wednesday's resumption of informal talks. (The fact of the talks was highly publicized; their content is secret -- both sides have agreed to a 10-day news blackout.) Less noticed were announcements from two TV networks that they're curtailing their development of new shows for next season. Both Fox and The CW said they are canceling orders for some of the scripts for pilots that they placed before the strike began. Neither network offered any numbers, but it seems clear that even if the strike ends in the reasonably near future, next season has already been significantly impacted. The networks will have significantly fewer choices to cobble together their fall schedules.
Brotherhood, Showtime's drama about Irish-American mobsters and their families, has been renewed for a third season, ending speculation that the show would be canceled. Brotherhood's first season won critical acclaim (including a Peabody award) but almost no viewers. But last season Showtime scheduled it following Dexter, one of the network's highest-rated programs, and viewership picked up. The renewal order was for eight scripts, somewhat shorter than the first (11 episodes) or second (10 episodes) seasons. And until the writers' strike ends, there won't be any scripts at all.
There may not be an Oscar ceremony if the Hollywood writers' strike continues, but the announcement of the nominees -- which is more of a news event than a ceremony, without any scripted patter -- should go on pretty much as normal on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time. And you can watch it live at oscar.com, which will carry not only streaming video of the announcements but bios, clips and other information on this year's nominees; a red carpet section with photo galleries from past ceremonies; a section on Oscar fashion; and another on Oscar history.
The deal that the Directors Guild of America signed with Hollywood's major studios Thursday could break the logjam in studio negotiations with striking writers. The new contract with directors gives them a much bigger share of the income generated by new digital media -- the Internet, cell phones and the like. That's been the major economic issue in the writers' strike.
But even if talks resume (the studios have suggested informal discussions before returning to the negotiating table, an approach that smoothed the bargaining with the directors), they won't necessarily yield quick results. For one thing, the writers have other demands -- particularly that producers and editors of reality shows be covered by any new contract. That was the point over which negotiations broke down in December. The whole point of reality shows, as far as the studios are concerned, is that they're cheap, and the studios want to keep them that way. If the writers are serious about this demand (and some writers have told me they don't really believe it's a deal-breaker), it won't be easy to resolve.
The other problem is that the writers' strike has become personal, with both sides engaging in acts of petty meanness -- the studios refusing to buy tickets to the Screen Actors Guild awards ceremony for producers (who are also mostly members of the striking Writers Guild), the writers marching with picket signs that include the home addresses and phone numbers of studio heads.
The writers are also clearly resentful that the studios preferred dealing with the Directors Guild. There's not a great deal of love lost between the two unions in recent years; the writers believe the directors suckered them into a bad deal on income from DVDs during the last strike, in 1988. And they also think that it was their sacrifice -- going on strike -- that enabled the directors to painlessly strike Thursday's deal with the studios. The statement the Writers Guild issued at the news of Thursday's deal didn't exactly brim with fraternal love: "For over a month, we have been urging the conglomerates to return to the table and bargain in good faith. They have chosen to negotiate with the DGA instead."
Bottom line: Thursday's news was the first tangible evidence that the writers' strike won't go on forever. But it's still going to be a while before the TV industry gets back to work.
Fox News is riding on the coattails of its corporate cousin Fox Broadcasting's presentation of the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. About 90 percent of the TV stations affiliated with the Fox network will carry a three-hour bloc of political coverage previewing Feb. 5's Super Tuesday, when 22 states hold presidential primaries.
The news show will kick off at 9 a.m. Eastern time with a special edition of Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace. Then Bill Hemmer and Megyn Kelly will join Fox anchor Shepard Smith for two hours previewing some of the key Super Tuesday primaries. The political stories will be interspersed with some Super Bowl news coverage, including an advance peek at some of the high-priced commercials that will air during the game.
Fox's sports division hasn't announced its plans for pre-game shows yet. But based on past history, it's a safe bet that when the political show ends at noon Eastern time, various pre-game shows will air the rest of the day until the 6:20 p.m. kickoff.